Child Maltreatment in South Africa

Child Maltreatment in South Africa – Understand

Child maltreatment is a form of violence that occurs throughout South Africa and can have a devastating impact on the wellbeing of children. 

In 2016, the first-ever nationally representative study of child maltreatment in South Africa was published, showing that over 40% of young people have experienced some form sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse or neglect at some point in their lives. This study reported on interviews that were conducted with 15 to 17 year olds about their lifetime experiences of violence and abuse across South Africa. This figure is high, but it is not unusual: similar studies on violence against children have been conducted across 12 other countries, with many revealing equally high rates.

In 2015,  the UN General Assembly committed to the Sustainable Development Goals, which include ending abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against children, and setting a number of  goals that also target the risk factors for maltreatment (for example, goals for good health, quality education and gender equality). With the Sustainable Development Goals having only just been adopted, it is imperative that global leaders consider these figures and understand the urgent need to take decisive action to keep children safe.

While the current statistics are bleak, there is hope that with reliable data, national leaders will be able to make real progress in improving the well-being of children. By drawing on the growing body of evidence that has deepened our understanding of violence and how to prevent it, people with the power to influence child-wellbeing at a national level can turn scientific evidence into effective policy. With the right support and investment, middle-income countries like South Africa are well-positioned to lead the way in this endeavour.

What is Child Maltreatment?

Child maltreatment refers to many types of violence that are perpetrated against children, or the context of South Africa, persons under the age of 18 years old. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines child maltreatment as:

“All forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power.”

This exhaustive definition demonstrates the many ways in which maltreatment can take place and highlights the critical factor that distinguishes this form of violence from others: children’s vulnerability to harm at the hands of persons older than them, in a position of power or responsibility over them or in a position where they are trusted by the child. The nature of the maltreatment children can experience often differs across age groups, as does the likely perpetrator and the situation in which the maltreatment occurs.

With this kind of violence, the perpetrator is always someone who has opportunity to be in contact with the child. And so while this can be a stranger, maltreatment is in fact more likely to be perpetrated by those who have frequent contact with the child, including family members, neighbours, friends or peers, school staff, health professionals, and other persons in positions of authority.

Under the Constitution of South Africa’s Bill of Rights, all persons have the right to have their inherent dignity respected and protected and have a right to life. The Bill of Rights also makes special provision for children, stating that all children have the right to appropriate care; basic nutrition, shelter, basic health care services and social services; and to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation, amongst other things. The range of abuses perpetrated against children are therefore broadly prohibited in South Africa under these rights, and in a more detailed manner under a number of other pieces of legislation.

Sexual abuse

The WHO defines child sexual abuse as:

“The involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared, or else that violates the laws or social taboos of society.”

This can include engaging in sexual activities with peers or adults, being exposed another’s genitalia or forced to view pornography, grooming a child for abuse or filming or photographing any of these abuses for the purposes of producing child sexual abuse materials (child pornography). Children may be forced to engage in these activities or may at times do so more willingly, however, what defines this maltreatment is that children are purposely put in a situation that they are not psychologically, and often physiologically, prepared for, for the purposes of exploitation, by an individual they trust.

In South Africa, the sexual abuse of children is addressed extensively in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act No 32 of 2007, which covers consensual sex with minors (statutory rape), non-consensual sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, sexual grooming, indecent exposure and involving children in the production of pornography. The Act defines a ‘child’ as a person under the age of 18 years, or in relation to the offences of statutory rape or statutory sexual assault, a person 12 years or older, but under the age of 16 years. Its definition of rape includes all forms of sexual penetration and is gender-neutral, meaning ‘any person’ can commit an act of rape or be raped. Children under the age of 12 are viewed by the Act as incapable of consenting to sex.

Physical abuse

The WHO defines this kind of abuse as:

“The intentional use of physical force against a child that results in – or has a high likelihood of resulting in – harm for the child’s health, survival, development or dignity.”

Physical abuse is therefore physically harmful. In similar way to sexual abuse, it is easily exerted because of an advantage the perpetrator has over the child, namely, their comparatively greater physically strength and the trust the child places in them. This kind of abuse includes beating, kicking, hitting and strangling, but it can also include abuse like burning, poisoning or even suffocating.

While maltreatment like sexual abuse is almost universally seen as taboo and problematic, there is far more social ambivalence around the physical abuse of children. This is because most cultures and societies use some form of physical abuse, usually milder forms such as spanking, as a means of punishing and disciplining children, and have done so for centuries. This makes it difficult to distinguish what behaviour is truly abusive, and infringes on a child’s “health, survival, development or dignity” .

The use of corporal punishment is currently legal in South African homes under the country’s common law, however, punishment to the extent of assault or assault with the intent to cause grievous bodily harm, is not. Distinguising between corporal punishment and assault can be difficult: technically, spanking is assault; when adults are angry, the conditions are ripe for an escalation of spanking into a serious beating.  However, corporal punishment has, since 1997, been prohibited in schools. That said, multiple studies and reports have shown that corporal punishment is still widely practiced in South African schools, often under the justification of educators having no alternative form of disciplinary tools available to them.

Emotional abuse

Emotional or psychological abuse involves damage to a child’s psychological wellbeing through behaviours like rejection, isolation and humiliation. While this abuse may not be physically harmful, it has long lasting effects on the child’s mental state, effecting their self-esteem and social development, and increasing the likelihood of depression and other mental illnesses later in life. While emotional abuse at any stage of life is damaging, emotional abuse in childhood is especially harmful because it takes place during a time when people are especially psychologically vulnerable, when they have not yet reached psychological maturity and have limited life experience to contextualise their abuse.

Like other forms of abuse against children, emotional abuse is usually perpetrated by adults responsible for a child’s care, and can include once-off incidents or longer term patterns of repeated abuse. As noted by the WHO, this kind of abuse is best characterised as a “failure … to provide a developmentally appropriate and supportive environment” in which a child can thrive, and instead subjecting a child to hostile or belittling treatment. Examples of this kind of abuse includes:

  • behaviours that threaten or frighten the child;
  • humiliate or belittle the child;
  • withholding of affection, indifference or discrimination against the child; and
  • restricting the child’s movement or socially isolating the child.

This type of abuse infringes on South African children’s right to dignity and appropriate care and protection.


“Neglect usually refers to an intentional lack of access to physical and emotional resources, where a parent or caregiver does not provide a child with the care they need despite having the ability to do so.”

Neglect is the failure of a child’s caregivers to provide them with the appropriate care to promote their healthy development and well-being. Neglect usually refers to an intentional lack of access to physical and emotional resources, where a parent or caregiver does not provide a child with the care they need despite having the ability to do so. It should not be confused with cases where parents are failing to provide for the children because they do not have the financial resources to do so, despite doing everything they can to care for their children. Indeed, this is an especially important distinction in the South African context, where in 2012, more than 10 million children lived in extreme poverty (Hall & Sambu, 2014). Neglect can also occur when parents provide for all their children’s physically needs adequately or even very well, but do not provide any emotional support to their child or engage with their child regularly. 

Like emotional abuse, neglect can occur from time to time or be a consistent pattern of behaviour. It can include neglecting to provide a child with the health care they may need, failing to ensure that a child accesses education, not providing a child with appropriate emotional engagement, failing to provide adequate nutrition to a child, not providing a child with adequate or safe shelter or living conditions, or even abandoning the child.

This kind of abuse can cause both physical and psychological damage to a child, affecting their health, physical development and sense of emotional wellbeing, and potentially even endangering their life. It can also have a range of negative long term outcomes, such as inability perform academically, physical health issue and poor mental health and social skills. This kind of abuse infringes on South African children’s right dignity but also their right to appropriate care, basic nutrition, shelter, basic health care services and social services. 

Child maltreatment can involve a number of different forms of violence, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. 

While these four forms of violence are known to specifically affect children, it is also common for children to fall victim to peer on peer violence, engage in self-harm or be exposed to violence indirectly, amongst other forms of violence. For example, exposure to intimate partner violence between parents can also have a lasting effect on a child’s wellbeing, even if they did not ever directly experience physical abuse in these circumstances. Children are especially vulnerable to victimisation in various ways because they are already vulnerable members of society, dependent on others for their wellbeing.

Violence against children in South Africa

South Africa has excellent laws and a national action plan to prevent, and respond to, violence against children; it has a clear indication of political will. However, laws and policies on their own are not enough: without enforcement, they are meaningless. This is where South Africa, like many other countries, falls down. 

In 2012, Matthews et al. investigated the nature of child homicide in South Africa, looking at the records from 38 mortuaries to examine the trends in the most extreme form of violence against children, murder. They found that South Africa had a rate of 5.5 child homicides per 100 000 people, higher than the global average of 4 child homicides per 100 000 people, noted by UNICEF. The study found that boy children were killed at twice the rate of girl children (6.9 versus 3.9 per 100 000 people), due to a substantial increase in deaths among boys aged between 15 and 17 years old. This age group had a homicide rate of 21.7 per 100 000 people, substantially higher than the rate for all children, suggesting that violence is a factor that impacts heavily on how many young men reach adulthood. Girls meanwhile were most likely to be killed between the ages of 0 and 4 years, and were also the most likely gender to be abandoned. Indeed, the study found that 44.6% of child homicides were due to abuse and neglect, including abandonment, and rape or sexual assault was suspected in 10% of cases.

While studies like the above have gone some way to explain the circumstances of child maltreatment in South Africa, the Optimus Study on child abuse, neglect and maltreatment was the first of its kind to explore the dynamics of child abuse in South Africa at a representative level, attempting to further untangle how abuse plays out in the South African context.

“784 967 of South Africa’s children have experienced some form of sexual abuse in their lifetime.”

The study found that 35.4% of children had experienced some form of sexual abuse in their lifetime. This included unwanted touching, being forced to have sex, ‘flashing’ or unwanted exposure to sexual activity or content and consensual sex between an adult and a child under 15 years old and younger. As a representative study, this finding can be translated into raw numbers, showing that it is likely that 784 967 of South Africa’s children have experienced some form of sexual abuse in their lifetime. 

Boys reported more sexual abuse than girls, 36.8% of boys versus 33.9% of girls, however, the type of abuse differed across genders. Girls reported more ‘contact sexual abuse’ or being forced to engage in some form of sexual activity, while boys reported more ‘non-contact abuse’, such as unwanted exposure to sexual materials. This finding highlighted the need to ensure that prevention and response services are able to sensitively provide care to both male and female victims, and debunked the assumption that boys are rarely the victims of sexual abuse, at least within the South African context.

One in three respondents (34.8%) reported experiencing physical abuse in their life, defined as being hit, beaten, kicked or physically hurt by an adult. Children were also asked about their lifetime experiences of emotional abuse, defined as being made to feel scared or really bad because adults called them names, said mean things to them or said they didn’t want them. 16.1% of children reported experiencing this.

When asked about their experiences of neglect, 12.2% of children reported having experienced some form of neglect in their lifetime. In this study neglect was defined as having a caregiver who was unable to provide care as a result or substance abuse or mental illness, having parents who were absent regularly or parents who had people the child was afraid of over to the house, if the child had ever had to live in a home that was broken down, unsafe or unhealthy or if the child’s parents ever failed to ensure that the child was clean and wore clean clothes for long periods of time. More girls (15.1%) reported experiencing neglect than boys (9.8%).

Overall, this study found that 42.2% of children had experienced some form of maltreatment (whether sexual, physical, emotional or neglect) and 82.0% had experienced some form of victimisation (whether criminal victimisation or exposure to family or community violence). Despite these large numbers of children having had some negative experience, the study also found that young people tend not to report instances of maltreatment, and that when they do, the services – social, police, criminal justice, and health services – are not as efficient or effective as policies clearly intend them to be. For instance, in cases where children reported sexual abuse by an adult they knew, only 31.0% of girls and no boys reported this to the police. Young men are especially disinclined to report, across all categories of abuse.

What can be done?

While these facts are troubling they also build a case for the path forward. The Optimus study provides a roadmap for how South Africa can ensure that young people who have been victimised will not go on to experience disabling consequences. It reveals that young victims of sexual abuse are twice as likely as other young people to suffer anxiety or depression; three times as likely to report post-traumatic stress disorder; and more likely to report problems in schoolwork, high-risk sexual behaviour, and substance misuse. All of these can have serious long-term impacts on young lives. However, appropriate treatment through health and mental health services can make all the difference, either by preventing the consequences of violence, or providing early treatment before they develop into serious, intractable problems. Schools can be a key referral pathway here, by attending to young people who have sudden changes in their schoolwork and referring them on to professionals.

Parents have an important role to play in preventing child maltreatment. 

The Optimus study also identified how strong action could prevent the maltreatment of children from happening in the first place. Parents should be a key focus for prevention efforts as children who reported victimisation were far more likely to have parents who misused drugs and alcohol than children who did not; and children whose parents had warm relationships with them, and who knew where they were and who they were with, were far less likely to report maltreatment. This suggests that scaling up substance abuse prevention, treatment efforts, and effective, evidence-based parent skills training programmes would go a long way in preventing violence against children.

The maltreatment of children can have a devastating effect not only on the victimised children themselves but on South African society as whole, because it impacts on the wellbeing and even life expectancy of South Africa’s future adults. Abuse as a child is associated with many negative outcomes in adulthood, including poor social skills, abusive behaviour, criminal behaviour, mental health issues, substance abuse and lower levels of employment and financial stability. These kinds of difficulties can translate into an overall inability to thrive and even into repeating cycles of violence.

There are many organisations working in creative ways to promote the wellbeing of children throughout South Africa, as well as, a number of government institutions who are mandated to provide quality services and protection to children. However, the findings of the Optimus study and others suggest that there is much work still to be done to ensure the long term wellbeing of these vulnerable members of society. 

About the authors:  

  • Catherine L. Ward is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. 
  • Lillian Artz is Associate Professor and Director of the Gender Health and Justice Research Unit at the University of Cape Town.
  • Patrick Burton is the Executive Director of the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP), a Cape Town-based organization engaged in the field of crime and violence prevention.
  • Joanne Phyfer is a researcher based at the CJCP.

Works cited:

Artz, L., Burton, P., Ward, C.L., Leoschut, L., Phyfer, J., Lloyd, S., Kassanjee, R., & Le Mottee, C. (2016). Sexual victimisation of children in South Africa. Final Report of the Optimus Foundation Study: South Africa. UBS Optimus Foundation, Switzerland.

Hall, K. and Sambu, W. (2014). Children Count : Statistics on Children in South Africa. The Children's Institute. 

Mathews, S., Abrahams, N., Jewkes, R., Martin, L. and Lombard, C. (2012). Child homicide patterns in South Africa: Is there a link to child abuse? Research Brief, South African Medical Research Council.

United Nations Children’s Fund (2014). Hidden in Plain Sight: A statistical analysis of violence against children. UNICEF: New York.

World Health Organisation and the International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (2006). Preventing child maltreatment: A guide to taking action and generating evidence.